Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sermon for March 28, 2010

Text: Deuteronomy 32:36-39

Our Old Testament lesson for today comes from the conclusion of what is called the Song of Moses. It is one of the last things that Moses would speak to the Israelites, whom he had led through the desert for the last forty years. Moses tells the people that even though they continually turned away from God, and will continue to turn away from God, He will have compassion on them. Moses declares to them that God is the one who will save them and deliver them from their sins.

I. “For the LORD will vindicate His people,” Moses says, “ and have compassion on His servants, when He sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free.” (v. 36) Moses proclaims the mercy of God as loudly as he possibly can to a people whom he knows all too well.

A. Moses knows the tendency of the Israelites to turn away from God and what He has commanded them in the covenant. He knows that Israel will try to find the newest, most popular way to get what they want, that they will follow after the latest trend in Canaan so that they might have power, and so they walk away from God and His covenant and His promise of grace and mercy. But Moses also knows that the Israelites will be left powerless in their sin, trapped in their own wayward habits and unable to free themselves from their sins. He knows that there is no way that they can free themselves from the death that their sin has earned them. He knows that rather than trust in God and His promise of salvation and life, the Israelites will look elsewhere for their comfort and their salvation.

B. How little things have changed! We are not that much different from Israel, looking outside of what God has given us for the latest craze and popular trend. “Just be a good person,” we're told, “and God will reward you.” Or another one of my favourites, “Think only good thoughts, and you can be a good person that God will bless.” We like these mottos because they put us in the driver seat and make us think that we have the power over our destiny. And we do love power. In the end, though, we find ourselves exhausted because we know that we never quite make the cut. St. Paul declares in Romans 3, verses 10-11 “There is none who is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God.” Like the Israelites, we in our sinful flesh are constantly being pulled away from God. Rather than turn to God and the hope and salvation that He offers to me, I turn away for what feels good now and in return, I am left empty and powerless. Despite our best efforts to find our own way to toward life, we will find that sin still grips at us and that there is no one left alive. As Paul says: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

C. Yet Moses also knew that God sees that the Israelites are powerless in their sins. Despite the fact they have rejected Him, Moses knows that the Lord will still come and have compassion on them. Much like the parent who has compassion on their child who knows that they have done wrong, God has compassion on them and frees them from their enemies of sin and death. God still has compassion on us too. God sees you powerless, dead in your sin, but rather than give you the punishment that you deserve, God takes that punishment upon Himself on the cross. In God's compassion, He sent His perfect servant, Christ, to the cross to suffer and die to “vindicate His people.” But what does this mean? I confess that I did not know what this word meant and had to look it up. Sometimes “vindicated,” is translated as “judge,” yet this word carries with it more the sense of being declared innocent in court of any wrongdoing. In other words the Israelites will be declared righteous. And this is true for us too! For the sake of Christ, who offered Himself up to death and suffered and died, as you heard in the Gospel this morning, you are declared righteous in His sight. By Christ's death on the cross you are freed from sin and death and by His resurrection you are given new life and the promise of salvation.

II. Yet despite the promises of God that the Israelites have in the promise of the Messiah, and that we have in the promises of Christ, we both continue in our foolishness.

A. “Then He will say, 'Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise up and help you; let them be your protection.'” God uses the situation that the Israelites constantly find themselves in to show them the foolishness in chasing after these idols. God shows them that there is no safety in them, there is no comfort or life that can be found in them. Often times people would call a fortress a rock, meaning that it seemed to so strong that it could never fall. The people could take comfort in this fortress, that whenever they were attacked they could gather inside its walls and be protected. The people would take refuge in these fortresses for their own protection and be saved from their enemies outside. Moses tries to make it clear that the “rock” of their neighbours is nothing like the “Rock” that they have in God. The protection that these idols seem to offer from sin and death turn out to a complete sham and leave the people on their own and powerless before God. Jeremiah shows these idols for what they really are: blocks of wood taken from the forest, decorated with gold and silver, maybe polished up to make it look nice and shiny, and then set on the mantle to be worshipped and adored. Jeremiah shows the Israelites that this thing, is just a block of wood and can not speak, walk or do anything, let alone do good or evil.

B. Once again, things haven't changed very much and we still search for those shiny things which the world has to offer us. I am naturally inclined toward those shiny things that offer me pleasure right now: money, cars, sports, gadgets, and these are the things that get the most of my attention, time and money. Like Israel with their idols, though, I am never content with these things, but am always striving to have more. Is it bad to have these things? No, they are blessings from God for which give thanks. We are told in the Ninth and Tenth Commandments that we are not to scheme or deceive our way into getting these nice toys. Instead we are to be content with what God has given us. Israel was blessed in abundance in the promised land, but always wanted to have more. And when it became clear that God might not bring it to them, they offered up the best that they had to these blocks of wood. Once more we see that things are not any different for us. Instead of giving the best of what I have first to God, He'll get the scraps that are left over after I get all these nice, shiny toys. If there's nothing left for Him, “Oops! Sorry! It's all gone!” We place our trust in these idols, spending our time, talents and treasures, hoping that life will be better if we get the new car, or computer, or get more active, or earn more money. But once we have these things we are always left looking for more. Yet these rocks turn out to be no rock at all and can not offer us refuge from death and can not save us from the judgement that will come upon us.

III. It is only after Moses has laid bare the weakness of the Israelites, the foolishness that plagues them, that God comes to them directly and declares to them that He is the one, the only one, who can save them. In another place, God declares loudly in Isaiah 43, “I, I am He who blots out transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember sins.” And again “Be still,” we are told in Psalm 46, “and know that I am God.” These texts confirm what we hear here; namely that God is the Rock, the only one in whom the Israelites can find refuge and take comfort in His promises of forgiveness, life and salvation.

A. Thanks be to God that things have not changed. God is still the one who is able to make you alive. Christ's death on the cross is the ransom paid for you (Mark 10:45). He is a ransom that springs you free from your sins and gives you the free gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23b). We have all been given this free gift in our baptism, where our old sinful nature was drowned and killed and we were brought to life as a new creation in Christ Jesus. Through the ongoing gift of the Holy Spirit, that we received in baptism, we now cling to the cross of Christ where we receive forgiveness for our sins and are brought to everlasting life. It is in the suffering and death of Christ that our sins are washed away “and by His wounds, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

B. The last phrase in our text states that, “There is none that can deliver out of my hand.” There is a story about a ship sailing in the middle of the night, when the call goes out throughout the ship, “Man overboard!” Now this ship is in the middle of the ocean in the dark of night, it's pitch black out there, so there is not much chance of finding their lost crewmate, let alone rescue him. Nevertheless, the crew rallies together and throws a rope over one side of the boat. Miraculously, the rope lands just in front of the overboard sailor and he is saved just before he gets sucked into the blades of ship's propellers. The crew carefully pulls the man back onto the ship, but when they try to pry the rope out of his hands, they find that the hope has been embedded in his hands. The sailor had become one with the object that saved his life. Faith grabs hold of the suffering and death of Christ on the cross and this same promise. It is a promise that Jesus repeats in John 10, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never parish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Dear friends in Christ you have been placed in His hand through your baptism and even though the temptations and assaults of this world threaten to pull your faith away from Him, Christ also has His grip on you. He is your rock and your fortress that will protect you from all the threats that would pull you away from the cross and the gifts Christ earned for you upon that cross.

In Christ Jesus, God has had compassion on us, His children, who are so deserving of death and judgement. Through the suffering and death of Christ on the cross we are freed from our enemies of sin and death. Through our baptism we join in the resurrection of Christ Jesus and are made alive, new creations in Christ. The compassion and work of God empowers us to remain firm in our faith, placing our trust solely in Him as our rock and fortress that protects from sin, death and the temptations that constantly assail us. God giving us His best to suffer and die on the cross, empowers us to give Him our best each day of our lives. By the suffering and death of Christ on the cross we are healed and made alive and He now grips us tightly as His dear children.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Review of Trip to Thailand and Cambodia, Part 1 of 3

At the beginning of the year one of my professors, Dr. Kettner, took my class of five young men to Thailand and Cambodia as part of the Parish Immersion course. As part of this course we get placed in a ministry setting setting outside of anything that we might experience here in Edmonton during our studies. Not much further outside of our experience in Edmonton than going to South East Asia. This was the furthest away from home that I've travelled and the first time that I have left the continent. After arriving in Thailand at midnight after an approximate 24 hour flight, we then P1040016 took a half hour ride to our hotel. The next morning, Saturday January 2, we stopped by the Luther Institute of South East Asia (LISA) and met our host, Dr. Leonard Harms who gave a quick introduction to Thai culture.

The first thing you would notice upon entering Thailand is the reverence that they hold for their king. King Rama IX is the longest reigning king in history, now hitting 60 years, and as king he is the most revered person in Thai society. There is no one in Thai culture that is allowed to be above the King. His pictures are placed high up on the walls, forcing you to look up at them and ensuring that no picture can be hung above it. When the king is travelling on the road and goes under a bridge, all traffic on the bridge is cleared and stopped since no one can be above the king. If a coin should be dropped and roll across the floor you do not stomp on it to stop it from rolling for two reasons: 1. You are placing the dirtiest piece of your body onto the printed image of the king's head 2. This is tantamount to stomping on the king's head. It is also a felony to deface any image of the king or to say anything bad about the king and you will be charged even if you are just a tourist.

The religion in Thailand and Cambodia is based on Buddhism and Hinduism with a very heavy emphasis on animism and spirits. The people will set up shrines of varying sizes in every building and site, shrines can be found in shops, hotels, houses, and cars, anywhere where the spirits might be able to get at the people. These shrines will never torn down and often you will find a site where the building has been completely torn down and the earth all chewed up but you will find a shrine still standing on one corner of the land that is not even touched. These shrines commemorate the spirits of the ancestors and will be prayed to and will be given sacrifices of food and drink for the spirits to eat and to keep them in good disposition toward you for your care of them. Since the spirits are naturally opposed to them if the people do not take care of them by offering these sacrifices, the people live terrified of the spirits and their power over them. This opens a window for Christian proclamation  and rather than tell the people that these spirits don't exist, to tell them that Christ has defeated all these spirits and we no longer need to fear them.

The city of Bangkok was not what I was expecting. I was expecting a more run down place without many of the luxuries P1020004that we see around our streets here in Canada. What I found was a thriving city with well maintained streets and street lights, with a Seven-Eleven on every corner. Western fast  food restaurants were as abundant as the native Thai and Asian restaurants, though the Thai restaurants sell their food for a tenth of the price. For 30 Baht, about one dollar, you could get a full plate of food that left you feeling satisfied and full without the heavy greasy feeling that you often feel eating North American restaurant food. And it is good food too! But I digress. Anyway, you do see a lot of developed areas in Bangkok, but you also see slum areas throughout the city too. Some are big, some are not. There was one not too far away from our hotel, near the river. The shacks are built next to a small waste water river that was built to keep the dirty water (which was black) away from the fresh water in the river across the street. The people who built the shacks are able to draw off the city electricity supply and then are able to work and try to earn enough to move a better home. Labour in Thailand, as well as in Cambodia, is often the lowest cost of running a business, for some perspective, labour is often the highest cost in North America, so it usually cheaper to hire a person to cut the grass with gardening sheers than buy the lawn mower and have someone maintain and run it.

The Thai culture is one that is very status based, with the king at the top, again no one can be above the king, with administrators for the government below him and the educated below them and so on until you reach the servants at the bottom. This comes into play very much with the Thai traditional greeting, called the Wai, bringing your hands together, palm-to-palm, and bowing. The spot where you put your hands shows your status, the lower your hands, the more status you have. Some people will even Wai from their forehead, especially if they are serving the king. The challenge comes in when you have Pastors, who are considered to be among the educated class bring that status mentality into the church. We visited one Lutheran day care that used to be run out of a church. The pastors who served the congregation had this status mentality that said that they should go up to their office and stay there and let the people come to them. Now due to the status mentality Goi, who is pictured here and ran the day care, could not suggest in any way that the pastor should come down to visit parents as they dropped off their children. It was not allowed because of Goi's status, being lower than the pastor, and because she is a female. In the end, this congregation ended up dying and merging with the Concordia Lutheran Church located across from the LISA office. The challenge that they have is how to introduce pastors who feel that they are educated and near the top of the status order, to the more Scriptural understanding of being a servant to God's people. It is a challenge that they are still struggling with today.

There is much more that I could tell you about my experience in Thailand, but I have tried to stick with the culture and the opportunities and challenges that the Gospel has within this culture. We spent a lot of time meeting wonderful people and seeing some of the best things that Bangkok has to offer, like a P1040028seven story Western style mall with Lamborghini, Porsche, and Bugati stores at the top floor. There was one night visiting a roof top bar, 64 stories above the city of Bangkok, with fifteen dollar martinis. The next article will focus on my experience in Cambodia with a concluding article focusing on a summary of my experience and what I learned during the trip, both about Thai and Cambodian culture and also Canadian culture.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sermon for Feb 28, 2010

This sermon was preached at All Saints Lutheran Church, Edmonton, Alberta. The text was Luke 13:31-35.

In our Gospel reading today Jesus compares His love to that which I think most of us can relate to. That is the love of a mother. It is one of the most primal urges a woman has, to take care of her children no matter what the cost may be. In our Gospel reading today, Christ compares Himself to a mother hen, who will gather and protect her brood when she senses danger. We can see this kind of love all around us. In 1996, when a building in Brooklyn, New York caught fire, a mother cat named Scarlett felt the same urge to protect her young ones and worked to save her kittens, who were unable to save themselves. The act required several trips into the building as the blaze worsened, fire licked at her fur and singed her almost entire body. The fire and smoke would do considerable damage, practically blinding this mother feline. Yet despite the pain and suffering that she knew would be in the building each time she entered, Scarlett gathered her litter of kittens across the street where it was safer. In the reading, God in the flesh is travelling toward Jerusalem, aware of the pain and anguish that awaits Him in His endeavour to save His creatures. Yet this kind of sacrificial love that we see in Scarlett is amplified in our Lord, Christ Jesus, who laments over how often He would have loved to have gathered His people Israel in much the same way as Scarlett gathered her kittens. The people of Israel refused God's care and would rather be left alone, away from God and His promise of forgiveness and salvation, and would rather be left in their very own sins. Yet even so, God continues to love His children and comes to gather all people under His care.

In verse 31 of our reading today we see Jesus on the road toward Jerusalem, walking with His disciples and teaching them as they go.

They begin to get close to Jerusalem and as they are walking, some of the Pharisees, who are part of the priestly class in Judaism, walk up to Jesus and stop Him on the road. “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you,” they warn Jesus. No one is quite sure why they want to warn Jesus, if they want to save Him from a plot by Herod to kill Him or if they just don't want Jesus to be in their city at all. What we do know is that Jesus is not scared at all by the news that the Pharisees bring, “Go and tell that fox,” Jesus answers them, “'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.'” Jesus stands undaunted by their warnings, even though He knows what will happen when He enters Jerusalem one final time, He is resolute. He is adamant that He will go where God has appointed Him to go.

If only we could be so courageous in our following where Christ leads us, to go on the course that God is sending us on. We are afraid of the possible suffering and pain that we might experience as God's messengers trying to gather all people under his care and sheltering wings. That fear strangles me to inaction and stops my proclamation that should be loud and exuberant. Instead I am stopped in my tracks by the voice of the devil calling down on me, telling me that it's going to hurt, it's going to be difficult and I'm not strong enough. At one time or another, we have all refused God's call to go where He leads us, I know I have. We refused to spread His message to the world because we are afraid of what might come after us and the suffering that we might encounter on the way there.

Jesus continues on the path that God appointed for Him, motivated by the strength given to Him by God and love for you. Jesus continued on the path into the Jerusalem despite the knowledge that doing so would mean that He would have to suffer and die, but did all that just so He could pull you out of the snares and traps of sin and death. As the author of Hebrews writes in chapter 2 of his epistle “For it was fitting that He, for Whom and by Whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” It is in His suffering and death that Christ pulls you out of your sin and brings you into His holiness and righteousness. Christ faced the flames of this world so that you would not have to fear its power. Christ faced the flames of hell so that you would not feel its burn and fear its power. You no longer need to be afraid to go where God sends you, to proclaim His news of salvation because He goes with you. You no longer need to be afraid because the gift that Christ has given you that can never be taken away or undone.

The story continues in verse thirty-four with a lament over Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings and you would not!” Could you imagine the pain that Scarlett would have felt if her kittens had refused to be allowed to be picked up by the scruff of their neck and carried out of the fire? If Scarlett's kittens would rather have stayed in the fire to their death so much that they were willing to attack her? Yet her love for her kittens would compel her to continue trying to save them and bring them out to safety. This is the same pain that Jesus cries out with as His own chosen people have refused His call to grace. Israel has attacked and killed those prophets and messengers that God had sent to them to make them wise to the salvation that He offered to them.

In our sinful natures we too turn away and reject the message that God proclaims to us through His Word and through our friends and family. Even though God holds out life which we receive through faith in His Son, we still refuse Him and turn aside that gift. The writer of Proverbs puts it the best: “I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded.” For the past two weeks we have heard the theme song for the Olympics proclaim: “I believe in the power of you and I!” We would rather put our faith in our own works, sleep an extra hour, stay at home and get ready for that gold medal game, go golfing, skating, skiing, anything but come to receive God's gifts. Where does the power of you and I get us? Luther answers quite bluntly in the Small Catechism where he says: “I believe that I can not by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord or come to Him.” These last two weeks have shown us that the power of you and I is anything but perfect, but instead leads us away from God and His life saving work.

But the power and love of God is greater than the power of you and I and draws us together into His Church, where the gifts won for us by Christ are given to us freely. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart you are brought to faith in your Lord Jesus Christ and brought to this Church where you hear your sins are forgiven. The power of God rescues you from your sin and brings you into His Church where you are fed His Word and strengthened in His sacraments. By the power of you and I, none of this would be possible and we would be left in our sins, but with the power of God, all things are possible and we are called into the saving faith. By the power of God we gathered around the foot of the cross and receive mercy and forgiveness won for us by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

The care that God gives to us as He feeds through His Word and the message that we have been saved for the sake of Christ empowers us. The care that we receive in the sacraments given to us by Christ, empowers us. We are empowered to follow where God leads us to go, to confess without fear and to stand strong in the face scrutiny. Through God's work in us we become one of His messengers to gather the rest of those still trapped in sin to the grace and mercy of our Lord.

Just like Scarlett who braved the fire and smoke of the burning building to save her kittens, God has braved the whips, nails and spears of this world to save us from our sin and gather us under the cross. Even when we don't want to be gathered under His care, and fight violently to refuse Him, God still comes to us and brings us to receive the forgiveness won for us by Christ. Through our words and actions, God works through us to gather all the world to Him, to rescue them from death and bring us to life everlasting.